Through the gears

Through the gears

13 April 2017

It's the Cogs that make the wheels turn in Cognitions, says Florence Bell

The appeal of Cognitions doesn’t lie in the lacking mother-daughter relationship or in the iffy writing. It’s all in the Cogs.

In fact, the mother-daughter relationship in Cognitions feels really emotionally muted. There’s no fire or grief. There’s no build up in the plot towards a confrontation that makes or breaks their relationship. Nothing has any real pain behind it; a problem that lies in Isabelle Kabban’s half-hearted script.

The mother’s attempts to take her mind off her suffering aren’t represented half as well as in Swallow. Although Cognitions is a visually stunning spectacle, it lacks the neatness and power of Swallow.

Quick sidenote: the decision to list the cast playing the Cogs as "Cogs" in the cast list is a mistake. I spent the first half of the play misguidedly thinking that the Cogs were the fractured personality of the family’s dead dog, Cogs (or maybe just someone called Cogs). Turns out they’re actually the Cognitions of the title.

The Cognitions, the thoughts, belong to Joanna. But even when she goes offstage, they remain on, a constant reminder that she (and the audience) can never get away from the forces in her mind. They enact her actions and her mindset. She plays with them and fights with them. (N.B.: Some of the fight scenes are really fake and could do with some help from an experienced stage-fight choreographer.)

The Cogs are all-controlling. Although the writing lacks verve, the decision to open the play with Joanna playing a video game is indicative of the kind of forces the Cogs represent. The literalisation of the sensation of playing a video game is spot on. The way the Cogs move is monstrous and alien.

Cognitions veers very quickly between extreme loudness and extreme quiet, extreme joy and extreme distress. The Cogs’ aggressive dances are virulent and wild and sickening. But there are also really beautiful, peaceful sequences. Like when Joanna pops bubble wrap and the Cogs click their fingers and bounce up and down with each bubble. They’re present in pain and in joy.

The Cogs only get interesting when Joanna’s daughter, Niamh, joins in with their dances. She seems to become one of the Cogs when Joanna fails to connect with her or when Joanna is really out of it (like, really really out of it: really distressed or really drunk).

The only way to achieve the pervasive stillness of the play’s ending is for Joanna and Niamh to connect with each other. Niamh shares her experiences of anxiety with her mother; they both need to accept each other’s suffering to reconcile their own. Faulty cognitions, represented by real people onstage, can only be fixed by connecting with those who are real in the world of the play. Profound stuff.

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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca